- Using maps and world-building for our stories.
- Cover design and self-publishing.
- How being part of a writing group is a great way for us to get feedback as writers.
I’ve been writing since I could pick up a pen; scribbling stories and poems since I was a kid.
Welcome to the sixth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process and the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I’ve asked horror writer A. F. Stewart about her writing process and where she finds her inspiration for her stories.
Arthur: You recently published “Ghosts of the Sea Moon,” which is a great read. I’ve always thought a great book starts with a map. Is there any inspiration behind your maps? The shapes of the islands and their placement?
Stewart: The maps came about because I need reference points for all the sailing my Captain and crew were doing in the book, and so I could figure the distance and speed for the story’s timeline. Their creation was basically me sitting down and squiggling some lines until I had some reasonable looking island shapes. However, as Crickwell Island turned out looking a bit like a sheep to me, I added wool as one of the town exports for the island in the second book of the series.
Arthur: In Ghosts of the Sea Moon, there’s a lot of description about the ship, the Celestial Jewel. Did you have to go on a ship to be able to describe it as well as you did in the book? Did you perform research, or do you have experience already which allowed you to describe with such accuracy?
Stewart: I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, and there is a large ship and shipbuilding history here, so I was somewhat acquainted with tall ships when I started writing. I did quite a bit research, though, on specifics like steering, docking, how they anchored at sea, nautical speed, etc.. I also double checked my facts by touring some tall ship replicas that visited Nova Scotia in 2017. However, I did take a few liberties here and there (especially in regards to speed) to accommodate the fact the ship has magical properties.
Arthur: It looks like you did your own cover design for “Ghosts of the Sea Moon.” What programs did you use to create it? What was this process like? Do you create the cover designs for all your books?
Stewart: I do design the majority of my own covers, as I have enough reasonable graphic design skill to get away with it. Mostly I use Gimp which, thanks to some helpful YouTube tutorials, I am slowly mastering. Basically, I combine stock images in Gimp (using layers) until I get the visuals I want and then add the title, author name, etc.. I do go through many variations, though; I think I ended up with well over a dozen discarded covers before settling on the one I used for Ghosts of the Sea Moon.
I penned a horror story to shake things up and I enjoyed it. And it turns out I’m rather good at doing horrible things to my characters.
Arthur: I’ve asked other writers about their names they use in stories. How did you come up with the names in Ghosts of the Sea Moon, and perhaps in your other stories? Do they have any significance?
Stewart: I try and match character names to personalities, like with my confident, slightly roguish Captain Rafe Morrow. But sometimes the character names come first, like One-Eyed Anders. That name popped into my head and I built the character around the name, even giving him a slight Viking edge. I sometimes put little inside jokes or references in my character names, as I did with the character of Cylla which came from the Greek mythological character, Scylla.
Arthur: The premise of Ghosts of the Sea Moon is that the spirits and souls of the dead are floating in a sea, waiting to be saved by a ship – such as the Celestial Jewel – or consumed, which is very intriguing. Is this premise inspired by something specific? How did you come up with this idea and create the world on paper?
Stewart: That’s sort of the premise, but only some souls get stuck in the mortal world, and it’s only the Celestial Jewel that goes fishing for them in the sea (there are reasons for that particular ship having the job, but I don’t want to give away spoilers). And the premise was inspired by two things in particular: tales of ghost ships like the Flying Dutchman, and the Greek myth of Charon, who ferried souls across the river Styx.
Arthur: My soul being eaten by wolf eels sounds like a terrible fate. Where did this idea come from?
Stewart: I wanted to put sea monsters in my novel, but I decided to base them on a combination of folklore, mythology, and real-life creatures. Hence things like Scuttle Squids, Sea Wyrms, and the Wolf Eels. I also wanted my monsters to be a different kind of threat than just beasts roaming the seas attacking ships, and that’s where the idea of them eating lingering souls came from.
I think writers need some kind of creative sounding board for constructive, critical feedback.
Arthur: Some writers name their chapters, some don’t. Is there a reason you did in Ghosts of the Sea Moon?
Stewart: I’ve always been a fan of chapter titles as a reader, so that carried over into my writing. It might be a bit old-school these days, but I like it.
Arthur: You’re a horror and fantasy writer. What draws your interest to these genres?
Stewart: I’ve always been a fan of the fantasy genre, from fairy tales to modern fantasy novels, so I knew that was the genre I wanted to write in when I started out. The horror writing came by accident when I was trying to break a writing block. I penned a horror story to shake things up and I enjoyed it. And it turns out I’m rather good at doing horrible things to my characters.
Arthur: When did you start writing? How long have you been writing? How did you develop your voice and your craft?
Stewart: I’ve been writing since I could pick up a pen (actually a pencil), scribbling stories and poems since I was a kid. The craft I studied and practiced: grammar, sentence structure, dialogue, world-building, etc.. That all comes from paying attention in those English classes and then continuing to learn beyond the basics. Voice, well that’s just me channeling the story.
For NaNoWriMo, I set a daily word count of 1,700 words and then broke that up into smaller chunks of 500 or so words to write in an hour.
Arthur: Macabe: Are you part of a writing group and is it beneficial?
Stewart: I’m part of a few online writing groups, and I find them a great help for advice, feedback or support. I think writers need some kind of creative sounding board for constructive, critical feedback.
Arthur: Do you self-publish your own work? What are the nuts and bolts of the process?
Stewart: I do self-publish, and like all writers, it begins with the first draft and then editing that draft into a polished book. After that, I hire a professional editor to refine the book into publishing shape and then get it formatted. Covers I generally have done in advance, so after formatting it is uploaded to Amazon and in the case of Ghosts of the Sea Moon to Draft2Digital for wide release. Paperbacks are generally the same process, then uploaded over at Createspace and proofed.
Arthur: Is writing your full-time job? If not, how do you make time for it?
Stewart: I’m semi-retired, and what work I do is from home, so I can schedule my writing sessions fairly easily.
I’m more of an afternoon writer, with occasional evening sessions and every so often a pesky midnight muse that makes me scribble bits in the wee hours of the night.
Arthur: How do you manage promoting your work and still making time to write? What method of self promotion has provided the best return on investment for you?
Stewart: I do most of my marketing and promotion efforts in the morning, as my brain rarely wants to write that early, plus things like email newsletters and ads can be scheduled in advance at my convenience. So far, the best return on investment has been ads on Amazon and BookBub, as well as a couple of email newsletters.
Arthur: On your blog, you talk about being a NaNoWriMo Winner. Congratulations! Now, tell me how you did it. How many hours did you write each day? Did you have problems with focus? Tell me more about the process. Were you mentally exhausted after on December 1st? How did you keep up the energy?
Stewart: For NaNoWriMo, I set a daily word count of 1700 words and then broke that up into smaller chunks of 500 or so words to write in an hour; I’m used to writing flash fiction quickly so the smaller word chunks made my daily goal easier. By setting those small goals, I got the word count done each day, most days even exceeding it a bit. I usually wrote in the afternoons, but occasionally I did some in the morning and finished up the count later in the day. I didn’t have much trouble with focus (I generally don’t when writing) and it helped I was writing the sequel to Ghosts with familiar characters. I kept up my energy levels with coffee, leftover Halloween candy and mint chocolate Girl Guide cookies, but yes, by December 1st I was mentally worn out.
Arthur: How often do you write? Where? For how long? Do you have any habits or techniques from NaNoWriMo which you use now? Avrin Kelly, who I interviewed in Episode #2, talks about treating every month as NaNoWriMo. What are your thoughts on this approach?
Stewart: Well, I don’t have the time or the stamina to keep up my NaNoWriMo pace every day, though I will be attempting daily word counts for each first draft of my books. The multiple, short word count goals per hour worked well for me so I will be keeping that technique. And I generally do get an hour or two of writing or editing in each day regardless, be it flash fiction, short stories or books.
Arthur: Are you a morning or evening writer? when are you the most productive? Do you try to hit a daily word count? Or finishing a scene?
Stewart: I’m more of an afternoon writer, with occasional evening sessions and every so often a pesky midnight muse that makes me scribble story bits in the wee hours of the night. When I’m writing a book, I do try for a daily word count and it can vary depending on my writing time for the day. When writing shorter fiction stories, though, I generally just sit down and write whatever comes.
Thank you so much, A. F. Stewart for talking with me for Interviews from the Void. Check out Ghosts of the Sea Moon, it’s a great story. Also follow her on her website for more of her fantasy and horror stories. Lastly, here’s a sample from “Ghosts of the Sea Moon” and a sample from the Saga of the Outer Islands companion prequel story, Sea Bound.
Next week in Episode #7, I chat with writer Eric Lahti about his writing process.